July 1, 2021

China’s Communist leadership is celebrating. From Beijing to Hong Kong, in spectacular stadium shows and solemn speeches, Xi Jinping and his fellows in the Politburo are hailing the centenary of the world’s most successful political party. A hundred years ago today, 15 men gathered in Shanghai to plot a revolution. Their successors now control the world’s most populous country and its second-largest economy.

In its officially approved history, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated internal enemies, vanquished imperialist powers and brought an end to China’s “Century of Humiliation”. The stains of defeat left by a series of opium wars and unequal treaties from the 1840s onwards were washed away by the revolutionary victory of 1949. The Chinese people, in the words attributed to Mao Zedong, had “stood up” and defeated colonialism.

But there’s a problem with this heroic narrative. Had it not been for colonialism and the imperial powers, there would never have been a successful Chinese Communist Party in the first place. If the sclerotic Qing Empire had not been forced to accommodate European military powers during the nineteenth century, the ideas and networks that allowed a communist movement to exist would never have been able to come together in the twentieth.

The CCP was not founded in Shanghai by accident. The first congress was held in the newly built home of one of the 15 revolutionary pioneers, Li Hanjun, at 106 Rue Wantz in what was then the French Concession. The French Concession and the neighbouring “International Settlement” (originally the British and American “concessions”) had been created because of the first of the unequal treaties: the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing following the first Opium War, under which China ceded Hong Kong to the British.

The two city districts were not formally colonies, but Chinese law did not apply there. By the early twentieth century, their combination of loose regulations and global connections had turned Shanghai into an international entrepôt. In the words of historian Tony Saich: “Shanghai was home to a nascent labour movement and its international ambience meant that not only people but also ideas flowed freely. Moreover, the foreign concessions meant that the activists could meet and conspire out of the reach of the Chinese authorities.

Li Hanjun and his brother Li Shucheng had built neighbouring houses in the French concession precisely to take advantage of the opportunities provided by this imperial intrusion on China’s territory. Both were political activists and their ideas, like their homes, were constructed from a hybrid of Chinese and European styles. Preserved for its role in CCP history, 106 Rue Wantz (now 76 Xingye Road) is one of the few remaining examples of a once popular Sino-European architecture known as shikumen.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Shanghai was one of around 30 “treaty ports” around the coast of China and along the Yangzi River. All had been forced on a reluctant Qing Empire by the threat of European military force. Some were insignificant harbours while others played roles that went much wider than trade. Shanghai and Tianjin became enclaves of radicalism, centres of newspaper and book publishing that spread foreign ideas far into their hinterlands. One of the CCP’s co-founders, Chen Duxiu chose to found his magazine New Youth in Shanghai in September 1915.

These radicals were following in the footsteps of European evangelicals a couple of decades earlier. Organisations such as the Christian Literature Society had been created by Brits and Americans to spread the good news of both Jesus and Western culture throughout what they regarded as a decaying Asian empire. They founded newspapers to translate the latest ideas about science and society into Chinese. They may not have converted many Christians but they radically transformed the worldviews of a generation of reform-minded students and officials.

One of these missionaries, a Baptist from Carmarthenshire named Timothy Richard, is still remembered in the Communist Party Museum on the former site of Peking University as the first person to publish the names of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Chinese. Meanwhile, John Fryer, from Hythe in Kent, was the founder and editor of a magazine, Gezhi Huibian (known in English as the Chinese Scientific Magazine). In 1892 it published what is thought to be the first article in Chinese suggesting a division of humanity into categories based upon skin colour. These proselytisers, and many like them, helped spread ideas of evolution, social progress, racism and nationalism in the final decades of the Qing state.

Protected by international treaties that guaranteed them immunity from local laws, missionaries and other Westerners could preach across the country. “Extra-territoriality” allowed them to create local “study societies” in which new ideas could be introduced and debated under the noses of the authorities.

These groups and methods were copied by the leading reformists Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao with their “Self-Strengthening Study Society”. Another historian of the early years of CCP, Hans van de Ven of the University of Cambridge, has argued that it was this “infrastructure” of intellectual networks that created the foundation for the subsequent growth of radical organisations and ultimately the Communist Party itself.

Other missionaries helped to create hybrid institutions intended to reform and modernise the Qing Empire. The Rev W.A.P. Martin, who had acted as a translator for the American delegation during the negotiations for the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, became the founding president of Peking University in 1898. Timothy Richard was the engine behind the creation of Shanxi University in 1902.

By the 1910s, Peking University was providing both the ideas, and in many cases the employment, behind the intellectual movement that gave birth to communism. Mao Zedong was the assistant librarian there, working under Li Dazhao who became the other co-founder of the CCP. By then Chen Duxiu had become head of the Literature department. Many of the other professors were key figures in the “New Culture Movement” which called for the abandonment of traditional ideas and the adoption of Western science and democracy. It was disillusionment with Western promises that led some to join the “May Fourth Movement” protests in 1919 and then to turn to communism.

In 1918, Mao and a few other students formed the “New Citizen Study Society” based on the earlier missionary-led model. Its key beliefs were also borrowed from the missionary-inspired reformist movement. Even the name — “New Citizen” — was copied from a newspaper edited by the reformist Liang Qichao who had once worked as Timothy Richard’s assistant. The missionaries, the reformists and the revolutionaries all prioritised the transmission of Western ideas to the masses.

The following year the New Citizen Study Society organised a delegation to visit France: joining around 2,000 Chinese who studied in France during and immediately after the First World War (in addition to the 140,000 who served in the Chinese Labour Corps during the conflict). After their exposure to the radical ideas circulating among workers and activists in Europe they returned home and, in January 1921, formally adopted the creed of Marxism-Leninism. They became the core of the CCP when it was formed a few months later. In fact, half of the 53 original members of the CCP had travelled abroad as students. According to Ming T. Lee, of the 12 who remained party members and survived until 1949, all except Mao had travelled in the West.

Studying in Japan, too, was a critical element in the communist awakening, although don’t expect any mention of this from the current CCP leadership who prefer to portray Japan as a bogeyman rather than a source of enlightenment. In the half-century following 1853, when the US Navy had forced open Japan’s markets and society, the elite in Tokyo and other cities had whole-heartedly adopted Western ideas of modernisation, liberalism and nationalism. As a child in the 1900s, Li Hanjun had been sent to study in Japan and remained there for a decade. He wasn’t alone: Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu and thousands more like them lived and studied there. The ideas they acquired flowed back into China during and after the revolutionary events of the 1910s.

By the time Li Hanjun showed up in Shanghai, the foundations of what would become the CCP were falling into place. The catalyst that turned talk into action was the presence of two foreigners among the 15 delegates to the First Party Congress in Rue Wantz in July 1921. One was a Dutchman, Henricus (Henk) Sneevliet. The other was a Russian, Vladimir Nikolsky. Both attended as representatives of the Communist International: sent by Lenin to bring about revolution in East Asia.

This was just one more contribution to a globalised series of events and accidents that had unfolded without any central plan over the previous four decades. Chinese communism, just like Chinese nationalism, developed as a set of hybrid ideas — mixing elements of local culture with supposedly universal values derived from Western sources. Its hybridity was, and remains, its strength. Nonetheless, communism, as it developed in Shanghai and elsewhere, was just as much a colonial ideology as the liberal nationalism and the colonialism that it claimed to oppose.

Let’s try to imagine a counterfactual. What would have been different if European states had not mastered naval gunnery? What if there hadn’t been opium wars or treaty ports, missionaries or magazines? What if Japan had remained closed?

The Qing Empire was already in crisis by 1840. Its economy was failing to provide for its people, hardship was spreading, and rebel groups were already challenging central authority.  In time, these dynamics would have probably spelled the end of the empire. The Qing Dynasty, a Manchu lineage whose homeland was north of the Great Wall, would have collapsed and their state would have fragmented.

Lacking the “glue” of Western notions of nationalism to hold the state together, the empire’s constituent parts — Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria and “China Proper” — would have split. Perhaps those areas closest to the Soviet Union would have ended up being incorporated within it (as Mongolia was in 1921). Some parts of the empire may have ended up communist but not Chinese Communist.

Without the treaty ports, the international connections, the intellectual milieu and the organisational networks that developed as a result of imperial interference, there would have been no political space in which the CCP could emerge. The imperial powers provided it all. So, when Xi Jinping and the Politburo celebrate their party’s centenary over the coming weeks, they should really raise a glass to the colonialists who got them to where they are today.